by MAX PIZARRO
Republican Anne Evans Estabrook will take the next step in her fledgling bid for the 2008 Republican nomination for United States Senate over the next few weeks with the formation of an exploratory committee, according to her campaign consultant, Larry Weitzner.
The 60-year-old millionaire real estate developer and former New Jersey Chamber of Commerce President wants to take on 83-year-old Democrat Frank R. Lautenberg, who wants to run for a fifth term next year.
But although she's contributed heavily to Republican candidates in the past — and to some Democrats, like Bob Menendez and Linda Stender — at a time when her party is still shaking off the hurt of recent statewide losses and standing up on shaky legs, Estabrook will face tough questions in a GOP primary.
Her biggest trouble is lack of support.
"I don't even know her," said Morris County GOP Chairman John Sette. "I don't think anybody knows her."
Somerset County GOP Chairman Dale Florio says he met Estabrook for the first time just a few weeks ago.
"She did come to our Somerset County fund-raising event at Fiddler's Elbow last week, where she was working the crowd," Florio said. "Over the years I've seen her at different events and heard talk that she was considering running."
While Estabrook is largely unknown, the lack of other interested candidates — so far, only Assemblyman Michael Doherty is seeking support for the nomination — creates an opening for the newcomer. She figures her best chance is to get into the race early if they want to build a political coalition.
"We're not ready to name the names of people serving on her exploratory committee," Weitzner said. "But there will be some elected officials on there. Our formal announcement will probably be in a couple of weeks."
But some Republicans — frustrated by the GOP's 0-11 record in U.S. Senate races since their last win in 1972 — don't want yet another self-funded candidate from the party's Mount Olympus of financiers and high-society mixers.
Unexcited about the prospect of Estabrook, Sette said he wants to talk to Assemblyman Joseph Pennacchio, and prod him to run for U.S. Senate. Pennacchio, a Brooklyn-born dentist, is expected to move up to the State Senate this fall.
"Joe is a real Ronald Reagan type of guy," said Sette. "I think he could appeal to a lot of Democratic voters. And if Rudy Giuliani's the presidential nominee, a conservative ticket of Rudy and Joe could really work. It's been in the back of my mind for a while."